Week four of the Russian Football Premier League sees one of the absolute highlights of the season as Zenit take on arch rivals Spartak Moscow at home in St. Petersburg. This is not only the game between arguably Russia’s two best football teams right now, it is also a game with deep historic roots. Ever since football came to Russia in the 1870s, Moscow and St. Petersburg have fought over the right to the football throne, and the bragging rights have moved back and forth ever since.
In fact, St. Petersburg played a crucial role in the introduction of football in Russia, and later in the game becoming the country’s most beloved activity. In 1894, the city saw the formation of Russia’s first football club, and two years later the rules were translated into Russian for the first time, also in St. Petersburg. In 1897, St. Petersburg hosted what is considered Russia’s first ever organized football game, and because of its openness to foreigners, they became the football capital of the country. In 1901, nine years before Moscow, the city got its first football league, which truly raised the pace popularity of the beautiful game.
In 1936, the introduction of the Soviet Group A, the first national league, saw the power balance switch the other way as the Muscovite teams became the dominating force, with Spartak, Dinamo and CSKA leading the pack. Between 1936 and 1991, the Muscovite clubs won a combined 33 championships, with Spartak taking 12 of them, while Zenit only managed a single title as well as one cup trophy.
These days, Spartak are on top. Last season, they won the championship, and while Zenit have played qualification games for the Europa League, Spartak have already booked their tickets for the Champions League group stage, where a spot in pot one awaits them.
Nevertheless, Spartak’s start to the season hasn’t been as smooth as head coach Massimo Carrera would have hoped. Granted, they did win the Super Cup against Lokomotiv Moscow after extra time, but in the league premier, they threw away a 2-0 lead against Dinamo Moscow, and only got a single point. A week later, things got worse as they only managed 0-0 away against FC Ufa, and at this stage they were already four points behind their rivals at the top of the league.
Last week, they finally got back to their winning ways, as they fully deserved defeated FC Krasnodar at home. However, as well as they played offensively in that game, Carrera should be worried about the amount of chances they gave away, and had Krasnodar not been without last season’s top scorer Fyodor Smolov, the result would possibly had been different.
When comparing this season’s Spartak to the team that won the league last season, it is clear that little has changed. They haven’t sold a single key player, which means that Dutch international Quincy Promes is still leading the team, despite rumours sending him to both England and Germany. After Hulk’s departure from Zenit last year, Promes arguably became the best player in the RFPL, which he proved with 12 goals and nine assists last season. This season, he has already scored twice and assisted once, thus implicating him in three of Spartak’s four goals so far.
In midfield, one should keep a keen eye on the central duo of Fernando, who scored a brilliant free kick against Krasnodar last weekend, and of course Russian international Denis Glushakov. The Russian general has a knack for scoring at the most important moments, he is a leader in the truest sense of the word.
If one should pinpoint a weak spot, it is the defence. Although Carrera is known to be a tactical mastermind and a specialist in defending, Spartak’s defenders are mistake prone, which hurts them. Goalkeeper Artyom Rebrov is excellent between the posts, but the four or five, depending on Carrera’s approach, in front of him are insecure. Five teams conceded fewer goals than Spartak last season, and this is something Carrera will have to work on.
For the game against Zenit, Spartak will have to do without midfielder Roman Zobnin, who suffered a terrible injury shortly before the Confederations Cup, and German defender Serdar Tasci. Earlier this week however, they managed to close the signing of Croatian midfielder Marko Pasalic, but it is unlikely that Carrera throws him in the fire already, having only trained with the squad a few times.